Are you a Freddie Mercury who wants to break free of a Johnny Cash baritone, or a Whitney Houston looking to roll in the deep like Adele?
While it’s true that all of us are born with our own unique vocal range, it’s also true that, with a little practice and dedication, notes that seemed far out of reach will begin to move within your grasp.
We’re going to explain to you how, with a couple of technique adjustments to get you started and a few singing exercises to keep you on track, you can train your body to sing both higher and lower than you ever imagined.
What is vocal range?
Your vocal range is the span from the lowest note you can comfortably produce to the highest. Vocal range tends to be measured in ‘octaves’, an octave being the distance between one note on a scale and its equivalent note value 8 notes (hence the ‘oct’) above or below it – so a lower C to a higher C, or vice versa.
You may have heard of famous singers being compared by using their impressive octave ranges, such as Mariah Carey (5 octaves) and Axl Rose (almost 6 octaves). To put that into context, the average vocal range for an untrained singer is estimated to be around 2 octaves, for both male and female vocalists.
But, with proper technique and regular exercise, you can add an extra octave to that, maybe more! Let’s start by finding out where you’re at already:
Identify your natural range
This is the most logical place for you to start: figure out where your natural register is, then follow it to its limits.
A good way to identify your natural range, apart from singing along to recordings of your favourite songs and comparing what you can do with your voice to what your singing idols can do, is to find a way of playing a certain note and seeing whether you can sing it.
If you have a keyboard or piano at home, find the middle C, which is also known as C4 – the 4th C as you go from left to right on a piano. For female vocalists, this will be your starting note; for male vocalists, we’ll go left, or down an octave, top the lower C3 and start from there.
If you don’t have a keyboard or piano, don’t worry – there are other ways for you to hear C4 and C3, such as by downloading a free piano app on your smartphone or mobile device.
Try and match the pitch of this note with your singing voice, and see if it feels easy and natural, or difficult and strained.
Then, go down the keyboard a note at a time, singing along with each one as you go, until you find you’re having to strain your voice to meet the note. This, for now at least, is the extent of your vocal range at the low end of your register.
It’s important for you to be honest with yourself about which notes you can comfortably and consistently sing, both in your higher and your lower register, as these will serve as the starting points for you to reach beyond. If, for example, you can always hit a G4 without too much effort, but on a good day you can belt out a B5, you need to consider that B5 an outlier and concentrate instead on building on that G4.
Once you’re familiar with how low and how high you can comfortably sing, it’s time to apply proper singing technique. Just by making a few simple behaviour changes, you might just find you can hit that B5 after all.
Sing with proper technique
Using proper technique will allow you to sing the best you possibly can, even before exercising to improve your vocal range.
The collective aim of the following is to a) maximise your airflow, giving you as much control as possible when you breathe in and breathe out, and b) relieve any unwanted tension in the various muscles you employ when you sing, as this will make your voice sound strained and will restrict your ability to push its boundaries.
These techniques may seem obvious, or even unnecessary, but these techniques are used all the time by professional singers and you will definitely notice an improvement when you use them.
Stand up straight
Posture is very easy to overlook – you might think you’d sing better if you stood with a relaxed posture, not giving any extra thought or energy to any of your other muscles.
In fact, a straight posture is essential when it comes to maximising your airflow. The more air you’re able to breathe into your body, the more powerfully you’ll be able to sing. If you’re hunched over, you won’t be able to fill your body with the air it needs to hit those trickier notes – so chin up!
Keep your feet shoulder-width apart. Then, going upwards, keep your knees loose and your hips in line with your feet and shoulders.
Keep your shoulders backward and low, which will stop them from collapsing your chest – an easy way to work out where your shoulders should sit is to clasp your hands behind your back.
Finally, keep your head at the very top – don’t stick your jaw too far forwards, as this will also contribute towards limiting your air intake.
Relax your jaw
Jaw tension can be an issue for people in many aspects of their lives, and singing is no exception. A tight jaw is a common sign of stress, so it’s important for you to take a minute to get yourself into the right mindset before you start singing, rather than leaping straight into it after a difficult day.
Check your jaw is relaxed by pressing against the skin under your mouth. When you swallow, you’ll feel this area of skin tense up. If you tense your jaw, the same thing happens.
With a loose jaw, you’ll not only make it easy to draw bigger breaths to help you with your breathing, but you’ll also find it easier to make the face shapes needed for certain sounds. As you sing higher and higher notes, you’ll notice that you naturally start to drop your jaw lower and lower – your body’s way of trying to achieve what you’re telling it to do – so loosening your jaw will also help with this.
Breathe from your diaphragm
You may have heard this phrase before – it’s a favourite of singing teachers – but you may not know how to do it, or how it will benefit you as a vocalist.
In the simplest terms, you’ll notice that when you inhale, you can either inflate your chest or your stomach. When you inhale and inflate your stomach, that’s actually your diaphragm you’re inflating.
Breathe in slowly through your nose and try to inflate your stomach, whilst trying to keep your chest and shoulders still. If you’re not sure you’re doing it right, place a hand on your stomach and see if you can feel it rise and fall as you breathe.
Now, purse your lips, as though you’re trying to blow out a candle, and let out a slow, controlled exhale. Repeat this a few times until you control your exhale without breaking it and rushing to push the rest of the air out – now you’re breathing like a real singer!
Lower your larynx
The larynx, or voice box, is an organ found at the top of your windpipe, and enables us to breathe, speak and sing. It also houses your vocal cords, which are 2 strips of tissue that vibrate when air passes them, producing sound.
Male vocalists can find their larynx by finding their Adam’s apple; female vocalists will be able to find theirs by tracing their finger from the chin down along the centre of the throat. You’ll be able to feel it rise when you swallow.
Female vocalists naturally have thinner vocal cords which means they naturally produce higher notes, whereas male vocalists naturally have thicker vocal cords, meaning they naturally produce lower notes. Even within the sexes, there’s a huge variety of vocal cord thickness – in fact, each of us have our own unique vocal cords at their own thickness, which is why we each have our own unique voice.
The simplest way to explain how your vocal cords change the pitch of your voice is to compare them to tuning a guitar. If you tighten a guitar string so it gets thinner, the pitch increases, and if you loosen the string so it gets thicker, the pitch decreases.
Your vocal cords work in much the same way – when you sing a higher note, your vocal cords are tightening; when you sing a lower note, your vocal cords are loosening.
As you reach for really high notes, your larynx will naturally try to rise. You can see this in action for yourself – rest your finger across your larynx and sing a low, constant ‘ah’ sound.
Slowly increase the pitch of your ‘ah’ to a much higher one, and you’ll feel your larynx bob upwards. Then, without stopping, gradually lower the pitch of your ‘ah’ back to where you started from, and you should feel your larynx follow you down.
What we want to do is keep the larynx relaxed in the middle of your throat, so it doesn’t move when you change the pitch of your voice.
Your larynx also rises when you swallow, and since swallowing causes your throat to tighten and close, this puts extra pressure on your vocal cords. This means that, if your larynx is approaching the raised swallowing position, there is less space in your throat for your vocal cords to stretch and reach the high pitches you want to sing – and if you try to reach those notes anyway, you could strain your vocal cords.
You can relax your throat and lower your larynx by imitating a yawn, since your throat opens up for a big intake of air. Place your finger on your larynx and pretend to yawn, and you’ll feel it drop.
Now sing an ‘ah’ at a low pitch, but keep your throat open with that pre-yawn feeling. As you increase the pitch, you’ll feel the larynx trying to bob up again – but you can use that pre-yawn sensation to keep it down.
Practice this daily, and you’ll soon find that you can remember the pre-yawn feeling and use it to keep your larynx relaxed. Your larynx will naturally move up and down when you sing, but if you learn how to keep it relaxed, you won’t find yourself straining your vocal cords when you’re nearing the top end of your vocal range.
Relax your tongue
As with tension in your jaw, tongue tension can also be a barrier when you’re trying to reach certain notes, for numerous reasons. You use your tongue to form different shapes needed to articulate different words, so you need to be able to change between them freely.
Your tongue is also the strongest muscle in your body, and is connected to your larynx – so, as you can imagine, it plays a pretty big part in how you sing. If your tongue is too far back and too high up in your mouth, it’s basically causing a blockage, resulting in your voice sounding swallowed.
The correct place for your tongue to be when you’re singing is relaxed flat against the bottom of your mouth, with its tip resting against the top of your two front teeth. This helps to create a clear passageway for your sound to come out.
To gain a better understanding of how you can keep your tongue relaxed and flat, even whilst singing, here’s a quick exercise.
Keeping your mouth open and your jaw still, say “yeah, yeah, yeah”. With your jaw already relaxed from a couple of steps ago, you should be able to feel your tongue moving by pressing under your mouth again.
Now keep your mouth open, but this time move your jaw up and down as you say “yeah, yeah, yeah”, and let the tip of your tongue relax against the top of your bottom front teeth. Press under your chin again, and you should feel a lot less movement from the tongue.
Now you’ve got each part of your body where it needs to be, it’s time to get your voice warmed up.
Warm up your voice
Before you even attempt to sing those notes we’re helping you hit, there’s one last area of the body to focus on. Just like how you’d stretch your hamstrings before going for a run, to get the best out of your singing voice, you need to warm it up.
Humming is a great vocal warm up to do first, because you can start to stretch your vocal cords without putting too much strain on them. When you hum, the sound comes out of your nose, rather than through your mouth, so you’re not yet involving your tongue or your lips, meaning you can focus on keeping those relaxed.
The vibrations you make when you hum also help relax your entire face, which will put you in prime position for maximum range. Humming can even help to clear your nasal passages, fine-tuning your breathing passage just as it fine-tunes your vocal cords.
Trill your lips
Also known as the ‘lip buzz’, this hilarious warm up exercise will help to warm up your vocal cords from resting to raring to go, and will also help you control your breathing.
Most of us have been masters of this technique since we were babies, but just in case you need a reminder:
- Close your mouth
- Breathe in through your nose (remember – inflate your diaphragm!)
- Say ‘Brrr’ by vibrating your lips together as you exhale, like you’re pretending to be a car, or as though you’re blowing bubbles underwater
Trill your tongue
If you’ve ever rolled your r’s whilst impersonating a Shakespearian actor, you’ll know what we mean by this. What you may not have known is: rolling your r’s is actually helping you to loosen up your jaw and tongue, which, as we know, is great news for your voice.
If you’re not sure how to trill your tongue, try saying the word ‘today’ as quickly as you can. The quicker you say it, the more you’ll hear it more closely resembles the word ‘tray’, albeit with a rolled r, as in ‘trrray’ – that ‘rrr’ sound is the trilling of your tongue.
For more ways to achieve that trilling or rolling ‘rrr’ sound, you only have to look to nature. We say ‘brr’ when we’re cold; cats ‘purr’ when they’re happy; and dogs ‘grr’ when they’re angry. Whichever way works for you!
Remember how earlier we moved our larynxes up and down? That was actually a free vocal exercise! And what’s more, it’s a great way for you to try out your humming, lip trills and tongue trills.
As the name would suggest, the easiest way to remember what a vocal siren is would be to imagine you’re imitating the sound of a fire engine. Start on a low note and work your way up to a higher note – but glide through each note along the way, rather than making a leap.
Once you’ve hummed and trilled your way through a few practice sirens, it’s time to apply your freshly warmed up voice to some actual music.
Practice singing scales
Just like when you’re learning any instrument, a good way to improve your control over your voice is to practice scales – the sequence of notes from one octave to the next.
Learning scales will help you familiarise yourself with the common relationships between notes which are used in most pieces of popular music. This will make it easier for you to instinctively know what patterns to follow, so you know which notes are coming as your starting point moves up and down.
One of the more common scales used for singing practice is the major scale – or, more precisely, going just over halfway up the major scale, then back down again. For the key of C, the pattern would be: C-D-E-F-G-F-E-D-C.
Start by singing from our old friends C3 and C4 – play this note on your keyboard or app, and try and match it by singing an ‘ah’. Then, follow the C major scale up to G3 or G4 and back down again. You can play along to each note you sing if you’re not sure what the scale sounds like yet, but soon enough, when you hear a solitary C, you’ll be able to sing what comes next by yourself.
If you’re focussing on achieving higher notes, move your C3 or C4 up one semitone at a time (first to Db, then to D, and so on) and sing the scale starting from that note; or, if you’re focussing on reaching lower notes, move the key you play down a semitone at a time (first to B, then Bb, and so on) and repeat this pattern from there.
The useful thing about singing scales is that you have a clear indicator of how you’re progressing. If, before you’ve started warming up and singing with proper technique, you were struggling to hit Ab at the top of the Db scale, try it afterwards – and then go one key higher!
Modify your vowel sounds
Mastering your vowels is the key to unlocking your singing potential, as it’s the vowels that you actually sing. When you sing ‘La la la’, it’s the ‘ah’ part that gives your word the tone, whereas the ‘L’ part gives it the definition.
Believe it or not, some vowel sounds are harder to sing than others – especially as you approach the extreme ends of your vocal range. This is because some vowel sounds are ‘open’ and some are ‘close’.
‘Open vowel’ sounds are produced by positioning the tongue further away from the roof of the mouth, meaning there is more space in your mouth, making it easier to sing higher.
‘Close vowel’ sounds, on the other hand, are produced by – you’ve guessed it – positioning the tongue closer to the roof of the mouth, meaning there is less space in your mouth, making it less easy to sing higher.
The 5 basic vowels, from which all others are made up, are created by positioning your lips and tongue in different ways. The tongue moves from front to back and from high to low (or ‘close’ to ‘open’, and the lips move from unrounded to rounded.
|Vowel||I (ee)||E (eh)||A (ah)||O (oh)||U (oo)|
The 2 fully ‘close’ vowel sounds, ‘I (ee)’ and ‘U (oo)’, are considered the most difficult to sing in a higher register. This is because the tongue is the highest in the mouth, leaving the least amount of space in your mouth.
Fortunately, as you can see on our table, each of these close vowels has a close-mid neighbour. ‘I (ee)’ and ‘E (eh)’ are both made with the tongue at the front of the mouth and with the lips unrounded, so we can modify words with the ‘I (ee)’ sound so they instead have the ‘E (eh)’ sound – likewise, because ‘U (oo)’ and ‘O (oh)’ are both made with the tongue at the back of the mouth and with the lips rounded, we can modify words with the ‘U (oo)’ sound to give them the ‘O (oh)’ sound.
So, by way of a familiar example, if you were to modify the vowels in the phrase “happy birthday to you” to make them more open, you’d actually be singing something more like “hah peh bahth deh toh yoh”.
As you continue to train your voice, you may find the original close vowel sounds easier to sing in a high register – which is great! However, you may still benefit from transitioning from a close vowel sound to another to get a more resonant tone – try singing a long ‘ee’ and gradually changing it into an ‘eh’.
Look after your voice
As a vocalist, you need to make sure your voice is in tip-top condition – and not just on the day of your performance, but in the days, weeks, even months leading up to it. If you stop looking after your voice, you will find those top or bottom few notes start to become harder for you to reach.
Fortunately, if you follow this guidance (and stick to it!), you’ll soon start to notice that singing at the extreme ends of your register is becoming easier and easier.
Drink plenty of water – H2O is a singer’s best friend, as it helps your body produce mucus to lubricate and protect your vocal cords, meaning you’ll be able to sing louder and for longer without putting them under too much strain. The recommended daily amount of water is 1.6 litres for women and 2 litres for men.
Avoid alcohol and caffeine – both of these chemicals will dehydrate your body. If you do drink alcohol or caffeine, make sure you balance out the damage by drinking plenty of water.
Exercise regularly – As you start to build muscle tone and stamina from even light regular exercise, you’ll find it much easier to maintain good posture when you sing – plus, it’ll work wonders for your breathing.
Cut down on dairy – dairy products, such as milk, cheese and ice cream, will thicken the mucus which lubricates your vocal cords. This means it takes more effort to get them to make the notes you want, meaning you’ll likely strain them and make them sore.
Keep your hands clean – while we hope you’re in the habit of doing this anyway, the reason why clean hands help you maintain a wider vocal range is that they reduce the risk of infection. If you catch a cold or the flu, this could give you a sore throat.
Avoid cold and hot water – water’s only a singer’s best friend if it’s room temperature or lukewarm. Cold water will make the muscles in your mouth and throat tense up, and hot water could burn the inside of your throat.
Get plenty of sleep – giving your body a chance to recharge is a great way to improve your performance in most areas without overdoing it – and it’s just the same with singing. 7 to 8 hours is the recommended average for adults – so hit the hay at a sensible hour and let your vocal cords recover, ready for another day of singing tomorrow.
Take it easy
And finally, be patient with yourself. While you will, in all likelihood, see some quick progress – especially in comparison to learning an instrument or building up your core muscles – you need to remind yourself that you’re training your body and mind to achieve something outside of your comfort zone, and this will take time and practise.
We also strongly recommend that you don’t try to aim too high or too low too quickly. We understand – as soon as you see even the slightest bit of progress, it’s natural to want to push yourself even further – but trust us, it’s much better to be patient.
The last thing you want to do is over-stretch yourself and cause lasting damage to your vocal cords, or any of the other parts of the body we’ve looked at today. If you set yourself small, achievable goals, such as working on increasing your vocal range by only a couple of notes for the time being, then you’ll find you’ll be singing a lot better, and for a lot longer.